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TODAY

Thursday, May 23

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Airbags

I went to bed on November 1st confident in my candidate's chances for victory. This was because I had forgotten my own words from last March -- that John Kerry shouldn't utter George Bush's name for the rest of the election. I had bought into the vitriol and hatred of the campaign, and rationalized it to myself. So as I slept, I had a dream, and in my dream I spoke to a hero of mine, who said to me, "Ramsin, Proverbs. 10:11." I'm a fan of the Book of Proverbs and keep scraps of paper with my favorite excerpts in a drawer in my desk. In the morning I pulled out 10:11 and was disheartened.

Very few people who paid attention to this election had moderate feelings about it. People were passionate one way or the other. It was a hateful, spiteful thing that cheapened everybody involved. It was unfortunate. And it proved to us a few things.

First, that our two major parties have lost any shred of nobility they once had. Robert Novak on CNN's election coverage last night said that America is a conservative country; this is a complete falsehood. It may be Republican, but this does not mean it is conservative. The reality is the majority of Americans disagree with conservatives on almost every single issue -- the exceptions being a handful of social issues. The GOP was once a great party, however much you disagree with them. It housed men as disparate as Nelson Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater; as Strom Thurmond and Everett Dirksen. They were the party of Dwight Eisenhower, the victor of World War II, who said that for every gun the government buys, they take food out of the mouth of a child. The Republicans are now simply a media machine, a marketing tool of vested special interests. The Democratic Party, once a great populist party that fought tooth and nail against vested interests, has become a coalition of people-who-aren't-quite-Republicans. The party of Harry S. Truman and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson has flunked its proud history.

Second, hatred cannot truly win an election. This is important. Proverbs 10:11 reads,

"The mouth of a righteous man is the well of Life; but violence covereth the mouth of the wicked."

It hurt my heart when I read these words, because it was a condemnation of everything I and so many who shared my temporary mindset -- whether liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat -- had fallen into over the last four months. Violence of thought, deed and speech ultimately muted our message. Many on liberal and conservative websites -- the vaunted "blogosphere" that has supposedly changed the face of politics -- have deduced that it is necessary to fight dirty to counter the other side. But there is a difference between fighting and fighting dirty. The Republicans climbed out of the minority in the 1990s by fighting dirty, and they were successful, but only because the Democrats didn't fight back at all, much less fight dirty. And perhaps fighting dirty will win you an election here or there, but it won't build a movement, so those victories are hollow. It won't build loyalty. Hatred is only as effective as the loathsomeness of your opponent, and absent that vile opponent you are sunk.

It is a thorny issue. Every indication is that negative campaigning works. That is the consensus -- although no politician would admit it. So how do you counter it? Big ideas will subsume negativity, if you are vigilant, and if you fight. Negativity rings hollow in the face of inspiration.

Barack Obama will be the first to admit he caught some huge breaks in his campaign for the Senate. First the leaked divorce records of front-runner Blair Hull; then the leaked divorce records of Jack Ryan; then the choice of eloquent lunatic Alan Keyes as his opponent. But credit where credit is due: he ran a campaign devoid of specifics, focusing instead on grand ideas and hope. Sure, his campaign may not have been perfectly clean -- but I honestly believe he would have trounced any Republican opponent (and I argued as much in March) because he ran on true optimism and a vision of helping all Illinoisans to achieve their dreams. Obama won huge margins in some Republican, rural counties exactly because of this optimism and hope. He did not demean himself with violent words, he did not fear-monger on focus-grouped issues, and so he drew healing water from the well of Life for many who have been disillusioned by the political process.

But the national Democratic Party took the bait, and followed the lead of their activist base by focusing their campaign on the failure of the other, and began to believe their own rhetoric. Everybody must hate George W. Bush, they reasoned, and so their entire campaign focused on demeaning him. Perhaps not a losing plan (that has yet to be seen), but not one that brings any gains in the long run. And not one that builds confidence.

This is not to exonerate, of course, the Republicans, who have perfected the art of manipulation, chicanery, and fraud tied to dishonest marketing-based campaigns that play on the fears and in some cases bigotries of the electorate. In Michigan, Republicans used fraudulent robocalls to Democratic households claiming to be from the state party, wherein the voice touted John Kerry's "pro-gay marriage" position (which is non-existent); in Maine in 2002, they jammed the phone lines of the Democratic canvassers. Just this year, they sent out green-jacketed thugs in Wisconsin posing as INS agents to scare Latino voters away from the polls. But it is not necessarily the case that fighting dirty can only be answered with fighting dirty -- it is simply that negativity in response is the easier way to win.

A positive, grand vision with a willingness to fight can build an organization -- can build organizational strength, which can always withstand negative attacks. Because in the end, this is not about which team wins, but about solutions to our problems; so long as both sides continue to fight dirty, we make no steps forward but merely engage in a morbid waltz.

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About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon covers and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at .

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